CEOs, sustainability advocates, and policy wonks agree that environmental change must start with getting people to give a damn.
FORTUNE — For seven years, Fortune magazine has hosted a forum, Brainstorm Green, to discuss ways to save the Earth. Attendees typically discuss legislation and regulation, science, and finance. This year an unexpected tool emerged as a theme for environmental action: Marketing.
Over and over the “green” crowd — from CEOs to sustainability advocates to policy wonks — made the case simply for communicating better with various constituencies about what can be done for the planet. Laws and policies and programs can only go far, they said. Getting more of the right people to give a damn is the next step.
Enter the marketing gurus.
Lee Clow, the legendary advertising sidekick to Steve Jobs on epic ad campaigns including “1984” and “Think Different” has teamed up with Conservation International to release what promises to be a shoulder-shaking series of ads. At the conference, Clow showed some samples of his work, including a stirring first-person narration by the ocean, courtesy of Harrison Ford. (Ford is a board member of the conservation group.) The tagline: “Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature.” Clow, who cleverly noted that campaigns need slogans that fit on a t-shirt, said the idea is to sensitize people to the need to care for the planet without making them feel bad. The ad campaign, which features other famous voices, debuts later in the year. (Fortune’s Claire Zillman covered Clow’s talk in more detail.)
Spiffy advertising also features in a new campaign to stop the killing of endangered species. Wildaid.org Executive Director Peter Knights showed his moving TV ads, which feature a host of celebrities including Yao Ming, Prince William, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Knights wants to stigmatize the purchase of elephant tusks and rhino horns in the countries whose cultures value them. The ads are moving and disturbing and heart-wrenching. They also have a great tagline: “When the buying stops, the killing can too.” On a shoe-string budget, Knights has recruited top New York and London advertising agencies to create his organization’s spots. These ads are out already; watch them here.
Marketing is one of the answers even in wonkier realms of the environmental movement. On the last morning of the conference I wandered into a breakfast panel called “Efficiency Explosion,” where various experts discussed how utilities can help their customers reduce electricity usage. One participant observed that efficiency methods are now well understood, many utilities have outstanding programs, and certain governments do a good job with helpful policies. The problem is that too few customers give a damn about saving a bit of energy. As the technicians know well, however, tiny yet widespread reductions in electricity usage translate into dramatic lowering of noxious emissions. The panelists agree that the last key to success is marketing these opportunities better.
There’s something hopeful about all this. There was a sense at Brainstorm Green that the bitter environmental wars are quieting down. No one much pays attention to kooky climate-change deniers. So those who remain in the policy arena can focus on solutions. (President Obama plans to release his latest efforts on June 2.) Once we are closer to answers, if the biggest hurdle after that is educating, convincing, cajoling and otherwise pulling all the levers of modern marketing to get consumers to do the right thing, then we’d be in a pretty good place.
Think different, indeed.